Environmental art is one way to bring awareness to our environment and what we need to do to help it.
French artist Henri Matisse said, “To look at something as though we had never seen it before requires great courage.” These five contemporary artists present us with an opportunity to bravely look anew at facets of our natural environment, which seriously need our love and support.
1. Naziha Mestaoui
Naziha Mestaoui is a Parisian artist and architect whose piece, “1 Heart 1 Tree,” uses video-mapping techniques to highlight the primal importance of rainforests. This “global citizen work of art” enables people to plant a unique, virtual, live-streaming tree via a smartphone app that grows in a public space or on a world monument in sync with their heartbeat. Mestaoui explains that, “each personalized tree is planted/projected on a monument with the person’s name or positive message,” and that “each tree will have tangible impact: for every virtual tree, a real tree will be planted in a reforestation program around the world.”
The earliest version of this constantly changing environmental art was exhibited in 2012 in Rio de Janeiro for the The United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20). Since then, it has traveled around India, Turkey, France, and beyond and was featured in 2015 on the Eiffel Tower for the opening of the Paris Climate Conference (COP21). This projection was live streamed by over 1 million people around the world. Mestaoui is currently working on the international tour for “1 Heart 1 Tree.”
If you join the project and pay to plant a tree, you’ll receive “a digital picture of your virtual tree, a certificate, a Google Earth file of the plantation zone you contributed to plant in, and a report about the project every 6 months, during 3 years.” Since it’s inception in 2012, 55,000 virtual trees have been purchased and the same amount of correlating real trees have been planted on all five continents.
Here’s more from Mestaoui on her inspiration for the piece:
Everything is interconnected at a fundamental level. My calling was revealed to me on a journey into the heart of the Amazon Forest … I lived with a native tribe called Ashaninka and I was so amazed by the connection they have to the natural world, to this subtle reality made of material and immaterial and especially to trees, seen as carriers of wisdom.
Following this trip, Mestaoui was committed to creating something that would:
Reconnect Man and Nature and raise awareness on the evermore-urgent environmental issues … We’re part of an interdependent system. [The] aim is to reconnect us with ourselves, others and our environment … the future we’re heading to is the one we create … We have much more freedom than we believe, and our technologies do not necessarily disconnect us from nature; it’s up to us, our creativity and imagination is the limit. At the crossroads of virtual and real … ‘1 Heart 1 Tree’ engages the public in a concrete social and environmental impact initiative.
Along with the “1 Heart 1 Tree” world tour, Mestaoui is developing several new works, including one “on the concept of using plants’ bioelectric communication to give us the opportunity to see plants’ reactions to their environment and hear them talk as they feel and sense their environment.”
2. Ludovico Einaudi
Ludovico Einaudi is an Italian pianist and composer who teamed up with Greenpeace Spain to create an “Elegy for the Arctic.” In 2016, he played this environmental art piece on a floating platform in the Arctic Ocean in front of the Wahlenbergbreen glacier in Norway. His site explains that this piece, “The most northerly grand piano performance ever held,” was created to urge the OSPAR Commission to protect the Arctic waters. OSPAR is the collaborative effort of multiple governments and the EU to protect the North-East Atlantic (named for the Oslo and Paris Conventions). Spain-based aerial filming company CopterClouds, which shot and edited the video, is owned by drone pilot Roberto Fernandez. Fernandez describes the project this way: “Somehow, we wanted the viewer to hear the voices of 8 million people who have signed up to protect the Arctic. Ludovico Einaudi embodied those voices in a poetic way.” In an interview with Greenpeace, Einaudi said being on location was “an incredible experience; you can feel the pureness and fragility of this area.”
Enjoy the stunning video, in which glaciers move and break behind him:
3. Jane Ingram Allen
Jane Ingram Allen is an international environmental artist who creates site-specific works using natural materials and paper she handmakes from local plant waste. Her piece, “Disappearing Boundary” was part of the “Spirit of Place-Site Ecology” sculptural exhibition in Huntington, Vermont. In this piece, Allen created a fence of fallen branches and handmade paper with local wildflower seeds, which eventually fall and enter the local ecosystem.
Allen says, “The seeds I chose to put in the paper were those to grow plants that attract butterflies, hummingbirds, and other wildlife. I dug a line at the base of the fence to receive the seeds — as the handmade paper melted with rain and wind, [it] fell into the prepared soil.” She communicates that “art can change over time and be a living entity just as nature does, produce a benefit to the ecosystem, and be beautiful in all stages of its life.”
She describes her experience as an artist:
I enjoy seeing the artworks in all stages, from the opening day when the handmade paper is fresh and everything as the artist made, to the decomposing paper and sprouting seeds, to the flowers eventually blooming and then disappearing for the winter and coming back in the spring. I like working with nature as a partner, not knowing exactly how things will turn out, and being surprised by how things happen.
She recently completed a “flower bed” installation featuring a handmade paper quilt containing seeds for local wildflowers with the Lancaster Museum of Art and History Cedar Center for the Arts. It “may still be there [with] the golden poppies and California bluebells in the quilt coming back this spring.” Allen curates environmental art projects in Taiwan and other countries and participates in the organization, WEAD (Women Eco Artist Dialog).
4. Matthew Willey
Mathew Willey is the creator of environmental art piece The Good of The Hive Initiative, through which he has “committed to personally paint 50,000 honeybees — the number necessary for a healthy, thriving hive — in murals around the world.” His gorgeous murals, which have thus far been painted at U.S. schools, businesses, museums, skate parks, and other public spaces, have become a vital beacon and call for honeybee protection and have inspired diverse community connections. Willey explained his inspiration for this project honoring honeybees began when a honeybee landed in the middle of the floor in his NYC studio. Willey explains:
[The honeybee] was moving really slowly, which afforded me the opportunity to look closer at a bee than ever before. I realized she was sick and so I hung out with her as she walked the last 2 inches of her life. After she died, I started Googling honeybees. Along with becoming fascinated with colony collapse disorder, I came across a behavior of the honeybee called altruistic suicide. When a bee feels sick, it will exit the hive and fly off into the abyss for ‘the good of the hive.’ This behavior had me questioning my own relationship to my community. Do I think about the people, animals, land, and natural resources that make up my community as much as I think about myself? Am I in balance (or at least working toward it) with other people and our environment, like the honeybee? Am I willing to sacrifice, in some way, for that bigger picture? I thought about how heroes like Martin Luther King Jr., Bill Wilson (founder of Alcoholics Anonymous), and pretty much every hero in books and film, went to incredible lengths for something bigger than themselves. But, it seems rare in the world today. Why is that? The honeybee’s immune system is not based on the individual bee, it is based on the hive … and so is ours. I felt like that bee was reminding me that my community is a living, breathing, extension of who I am.
Willey interacts with and collaborates with every local community he works in in order to increase dialogue and awareness about the decline of honeybees and to celebrate their beauty. Willey told The News & Observer that, “When people talk or write about bees, it stays in your head, but painting goes to your heart.” The swarm-themed environmental art mural below at Burt’s Bees Headquarters relied on the collaboration of four hundred employees.
This winter, Willey is designing, painting, and selling individual bee artworks called EveryBees.
One of the ways The Good of the Hive is working toward bringing bees to as many ‘human hives’ as possible. The initiative will be heading to different parts of the U.S. as well as other countries this year and we will be filming and creating content that allows people to follow along.
5. Rachel Sussman
Photographer Rachel Sussman has spent over a decade capturing images of the oldest living things in the world. All of her subjects are at least 2,000 years old — if not much older. In the preface of her book, Sussman writes that her environmental art photos are “meant to forge a personal connection to a time frame well outside our temporal comfort zone.” The photo below is not Sussman’s but is of the oldest known tree in the world, “Old Tjikko,” a 9,558 -year-old Norway Spruce in Sweden, which is included in her collection. You can view selected photos of the ancient beings she honors on her website.
In their own unique way, each of these artists environmental art offer us fresh, appreciative perspectives of the Earth and help us to consider new ways of befriending our precious natural environment.
Julia Travers is a writer and journalist. She has written with Not Impossible, Earth Island Journal, SciArt Magazine, and many other publications. Check out more of her work here.
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